The price estimates for the June auctions are setting the rumour mills buzzing over the revival of the Indian art souk
Two years ago, this month, a painting by F N Souza sold at Christie’s for Rs 10.5 crore. And though prices for masters have since “corrected” themselves, and for contemporaries pretty much collapsed, June 2010 could end up setting a new benchmark for both. Take S H Raza whose Saurashtra has a scorching estimate between Rs 8.8 crore and Rs 12.27 crore at the Christie’s auction in London on June 10 — so extraordinarily valued that it could see prices for other works by Raza commensurately harden. Already, Raza is probably out-selling M F Husain in both prices and volume, and any increase in his prices will see the bar rise for his fellow progressives in particular but also the moderns in general.
But the big surprise could be in the rising eminence of the contemporaries with Bharti Kher’s quite extraordinary The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own coming up for auction at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction on June 28 in London. Estimated at a low of Rs 5.4 crore and a high of Rs 8.1 crore, this massive work which shows a (dying? dead?) elephant entirely covered with her trademark bindis, which was first exhibited in London in 2006, was snatched up by collector Frank Cohen, while art impresario and promoter Charles Saatchi went on to showcase her work at his Saatchi Galleries on several occasions. If Kher is able to best, or even arrive at the estimated value, she will single-handedly inject an adrenaline shot into the market for her peers, not least of them her husband Subodh Gupta who once ruled over India’s contemporary scene. Even though Gupta remains popular, his prices have tanked — consider his Chimta installation at Christie’s sale on June 10 which has been modestly estimated between Rs 1.3 crore and Rs 2 crore.
A shift in interest is also evident in the prices of Bhupen Khakhar often referred to as India’s David Hockney, whose Republic Day sold at Bonhams on June 2 for Rs 81 lakh (three times the higher estimate), and whose Untitled work at the forthcoming Christie’s auction has an estimated value between Rs 68 lakh and Rs 1 crore. (Manjit Bawa’s self-portrait is similarly priced, but, interestingly, Subodh Gupta’s Untitled painting on the issue of displacement and migration addressed through packed suitcases and bundles on airport trolleys and taxis is estimated at the Sotheby’s auction on June 15 in London between Rs 1 crore and Rs 1.2 crore.)
Nor have the masters abdicated entirely to Raza, even though he is leaps ahead of his peers. An abstract but luminous work from 1966, January 24, is estimated between Rs 2 crore and Rs 3.4 crore, the same as his Rajasthan painted in 1981, both at the Sotheby’s sale. Comparable works by his peers are Tyeb Mehta’s Falling Bird at between Rs 2.7 crore and Rs 4 crore, and M F Husain’s Untitled painting of Arjuna and Krishna estimated between Rs 3.4 crore and Rs 4.7 crore.
While most prices appear to be strengthening, punters are obviously hoping that the glut of Souzas and Rabindranath Tagores at least will mean that prices for these two artists will not harden — there are as many as 153 lots consisting of 573 works by Souza at the Christie’s auction on June 9 (from the Souza Estate), and 12 Tagores at the Sotheby’s sale on June 15. While the Tagores may appear a minuscule number in comparison with the Souza bounty, the fact that they are “national treasures” in India, and that numbers such as these (almost adding up to a “collection”) will be difficult to come by, means you can anticipate some frantic bidding. These works, the property of Dartington Hall Trust, were probably gifted to the Elmhirsts in 1939, and consist of Tagore’s classic portraits and landscapes. Their prices have been pegged mostly in the Rs 17-20 lakh range. Tagore’s prices remain more or less steady despite their rarity because they are usually small paper works, and are done with coloured inks, watercolour, gouache and pastels — even so, interest in this collection could see these auction prices soar.
Of course, the Souza works are drawings, so the prices will not breach barriers in quite the same way as his paintings have tended to. Instead, they could provide collectors with a plenitude — gallery owners, in particular, could be salivating over the rich array available in some lots. There is the expectation that the numbers will keep prices in check — many works may go between Rs 70,000 and Rs 1 lakh, and though there may be the occasional spike, most remain sub-Rs 10 lakh.
There’s an Indian summer in London, and in all probability it could pitch prices stronger for the Saffronart auction on June 16-17, as collectors come out in force with some fierce bidding on the anvil. May the gavel be with them.
These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which the writer is associated.